Mad Men: 5 Times Don Draper Was A Genius (& 5 When He Wasn’t)

Don Draper of Mad Men

Mad Men, a TV series about the advertising world of the 1960s, became a smash hit when it began airing on AMC in 2007. Running for seven seasons, it made the character Don Draper, played beautifully by Jon Hamm, seem like someone who might really have existed. (Indeed, he was inspired by someone real.)

Troubled, womanizing, often drowning his sorrows in alcohol, Don was also an advertising genius. He delivered pitches that left executives begging the Sterling Cooper agency to take them on as clients, and had his creative underlings mesmerized by his thought process, wishing they could possess a fraction of his talent.

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But Don wasn’t always at the top of his game, professionally or personally. Here are 5 times he was an absolute genius, and 5 times he wasn’t.

10 Genius: When He Backed Peggy on Burger Chef

Sometimes begin a genius means knowing when to admit that others are right, and backing an employee who has a good idea. This is just what Don did when Peggy, his protégé, was trying to pitch the family supper idea to Burger Chef.

While Don’s heart wasn’t in the business at the time, which is in large part why he relented, his suggesting that no one in the room knew more about the Burger Chef customer than Peggy was the right move, as was his insistence that she was “uniquely qualified” to head up the modern campaign — because she was.

9 Not a Genius: The Life Cereal Pitch

A drunken Don stumbles into a meeting with a client, Life Cereal, and pitches an uninspired campaign about eating life by the bowl. Huh? When they don’t bite, he spews off equally awful taglines like, “The cure for the common breakfast.” Even so, the clueless businessmen eat it up (pun intended).

Turns out the clichéd tagline wasn’t even Don’s; it was suggested by a young man who was trying to get a job at the agency. This was an epic fail on Don’s part that was a lackluster follow-up to his fabulous Kodak Carousel pitch.

8 Genius: Lucky Strike Toasted Tagline

Mad Men Don Draper

Sure, it was terrible that Don was knowingly helping a client pitch cigarettes to customers when the awful health implications were just coming to light. But his genius ad sense discovered that they could essentially say anything they wanted to make the brand stand out among the competitors since the products were really just all the same.

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Thus came the idea to suggest that Lucky Strike cigarettes were “toasted,” making them taste better, and seem more luxurious than others. This was the first time that Don’s true genius was on display, and it set the tone for the rest of the series.

7 Not a Genius: Pimping Out Joan

We get that as an amazing ad man, Don would go to great lengths to get clients and win them over. But in this instance, he went too far, essentially pimping out Joan to an executive at Jaguar in order to secure a contract.

It was a low for him, and a disturbing reflection of the times that Joan relented and went along with the deal so she could have a better position at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The irony of Don's tagline for the brand makes things even more despicable: “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” In fairness, Don did try to stop Joan from going through with it, but she had already done the deed.

6 Genius: Heinz Ketchup and the Imagination

Leave it to Don to figure out that the best way to promote Heinz ketchup wasn’t to show it in the ads, but not to show it at all. Instead, his brilliant campaign consisted of images of food that desperately needed a dollop of the condiment.

“The greatest thing you have working for you,” he told the executives, “is not the photo you take or the picture you paint, it’s the imagination of the consumer.” Despite their insistence that the bottle needed to be shown in order to have an effective campaign, Don realized how powerful the ads could be without it. Interestingly, Heinz went ahead and launched that actual campaign back in 2017.

5 Not a Genius: Losing the Hershey Account

We have to give Don credit for being honest about his life, but any advertising agency that actively tries to lose a client isn’t exactly doing their job. Which is why, after this “pitch,” Don was sent on a leave of absence.

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Rather than conjure up stories about affection and love that the Hershey’s brand brings, Don tells the executive about his sordid past growing up in a brothel, and how the only time he felt wanted was when one of the girls working there would buy him a Hershey bar. Hershey was his currency of affection. It wasn’t exactly the image Hershey wanted for its brand, and they were naturally taken aback.

4 The Coca Cola Pitch: Genius

Marking one of the best series finales ever, Don was taking some time off work and staying at a hippie colony where meditation was a frequent activity. With his mind completely clear as he sat atop a hill, the audience is led to believe that this is when he comes up with the iconic Coca Cola Hilltop commercial, and the song “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

Using this iconic campaign and commercial, which was actually created by an ad man at McCann-Erickson, was the perfect way to show the true genius of Don, despite all of his internal struggles.

3 Not a Genius: Constantly Drinking on the Job 

We get that it was par for the course back then, and every businessman held a meeting or conversation in their office with a smoke or drink — or both — in his hand. But Don’s drinking got way out of hand, both in and out of the office.

The particularly bad moments, were when he was drunk at the office and pitching clients, yelling at employees, passing out on the couch in his clothes, or pursuing women. It’s clear he needed help in more ways than one. Drinking to the point of intoxication while at work...not cool.

2 Genius: The Kodak Carousel Pitch

The most epic speech and pitch, Don’s Kodak “wheel” pitch was a moment that had even viewers getting teary-eyed. It was as much in the delivery as it was in the words, as Don walked the executives through how to pitch their seemingly archaic wheel technology at a time when flash photography was all the rage.

He talked about the sentimental bond with Kodak versus the focus on the “new.” It was all about nostalgia as Don dimmed the lights, booted up the carousel, and began to show a selection of his own family photos. “This device isn’t a spaceship,” he said, “It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel.” The best line comes at the end of the pitch, when Don’s colleague Duck Phillips looks the awe-stricken executives in the eye and says, “Good luck at your next meeting.”

1 Stealing Another Man’s Identity: Not a Genius

Don Draper of Mad Men

Sure, Don truly wanted to escape his life, and doing so was a lot easier back then than it would be now. His idea to steal a dead man’s identity and live as him was sort of genius, but not really since it was inevitable that Don would eventually get caught.

Born Dick Whitman to a prostitute and raised in a brothel, Don took an opportunity when his Lieutenant died during the war and he was the only witness — and pretty well caused the death by “accidentally” dropping his lighter. Dick Whitman assumed Lieutenant Draper's identity, took care of his grieving wife in exchange for her silence, and lived out the remainder of his life as someone else.

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